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Navajo Marine carries on tradition

23 May 2003 | Cpl. Veronika Tuskowski

Every morning before sunrise, Cpl. Christabel Toledo, food services specialist with Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, wakes up and gets dressed for her morning offering to Mother Earth.

Stepping outside the tent with a pouch of corn pollen in one hand and a feather in the other, Toledo faces the sunrise to begin her offering. She takes a pinch of the corn pollen, puts it in her mouth, on her head, and then sprinkles it to the earth and begins praying. While praying, she raises the feather above her head and rotates it clockwise.

This is one of the many Navajo traditions Toledo is keeping alive while in the Marine Corps and thousands of miles away from home.

The Steamboat, Ariz., native is part of one of the largest tribes in the nation. She grew up on a reservation that stretched across Arizona and New Mexico.

Toledo spent her first 10 years of life on the reservation, living in a hogan or house made of mud with doors to the east. There was no running water or electricity. Her childhood activities included riding horses and playing horseshoe games.

Toledo's elementary school on the reservation was open to the public and taught Navajo language and history.

Her family moved out of the hogan when she was 10 and into a more modern house.

When she was 16, she was given the animal name "bear" by the medicine man. 

Toledo lived on the reservation up until she joined the Marine Corps in 1999. 

She continued the trend as three generations of her family had served in the military.

"I joined the Marine Corps to keep up the family tradition," said Toledo, who has a younger sister also in the Marine Corps who recently graduated bootcamp.

"My uncle is in the Army, and my great grandfather, Frank Toledo, spoke Navajo and was a wind talker for the Marine Corps in World War II," Toldedo added.

Before deploying to Kuwait, Toledo's family held a ceremony for her.

"In the past when Navajo's were sent off to war, their families would hold protection ceremonies for them," said Toledo.

"Six people attended my ceremony before I left for Kuwait, including the medicine man," she said. "My family members sang and prayed along with the him and performed an offering using corn pollen for my protection."

During the ceremony, the medicine man gave her a feather to wear for her safety.

"I put my feather in my Kevlar helmet and take it with me wherever I go. It's a shield of protection," Toledo explained.

While Toledo is across the world from her 19-month-old daughter, Christine, her parents are taking good care of her in New Mexico.

"My parents are teaching her the Navajo traditions and language while I am over here," Toledo said. "I try to educate her when I am with her by bringing her to ceremonies and talking to her in Navajo. By the time she is older I hope for her speak it fluently."

Toledo's parents have been very supportive and are proud of their daughter. She is keeping the tradition alive while in Kuwait.

"My parents always say that I not only represent my family, but I am also representing our people," she said.